Movement 1: Allegro, con molto
Movement 2: Adagio molto, sostenuto
Movement 3: Scherzo: Vivace
Movement 4: Allegro molto
It is true that few people who don’t know it would ever guess that this symphony is by Charles Ives. It seems a product of some 1890s European, or an American imitator. In fact, Ives was enormously gifted at imitating a range of styles, whether a Victorian parlour song or a German lied or a take-off of Debussy. Games with styles would be an important feature of his music. Here, he hits late Romanticism spot-on. And in the end, as usual, Ives imbues this work with a powerful personality. The First Symphony is tuneful, rousing, funny, sometimes spine-chilling. For all its rampant (and rambling) eclecticism it is one of the most entertaining and individual symphonies in the American repertoire.
It begins with a pulsing string figure over which a clarinet sings a wistful theme that Dvorák might have admired. In the background lurks a certain Romantic fatalism that will come and go in the movement until it boils over in the coda. The development section begins with a remarkable stroke: a quiet, haunting, endlessly rising chord sequence decorated with wisps of melody. Ives would not forget those chords; they turn up again in his valedictory Psalm 90.
After a second movement based on a Dvorákian quasi-spiritual for cor anglais comes a nimble and delightful canonic scherzo, which in scoring and execution can only be called masterful. The finale is entirely of the ‘banish care’ variety, filled with romping themes and vigorous march rhythms until it ends brassily with one of Ives’s grand parades of themes from the whole symphony.
from notes by Jan Swafford © 2006